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  • Ali Boston

Book review: Love + Work by Marcus Buckingham

What does it mean to love your job, and how much of your time should you spend doing the things you love? A human performance researcher known for his work on the StrengthsFinder system, Marcus Buckingham explores these questions and more in his latest book Love + Work. Join us to discuss the key themes from the book on February 29 at the MeaningSphere Book Club.

A cozy garden gate with a heart shaped peephole window.
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“Love what you do and you will never work another day in your life,” so goes the saying. We spend a huge portion of our waking hours “at work”—around a third of our lives. More than 75 percent of college-educated graduates say that passion is an important factor when making career decisions. Yet just under a quarter of us are engaged in our jobs, according to Gallup's most recent State of the Global Workplace report (and that's an improvement following a pandemic-era low). Cue Love + Work, the latest from human performance researcher Marcus Buckingham. The book takes us on a timely exploration about the role of love in the work we do and how to find it.

Having grown up in the United Kingdom, Buckingham moved to the United States in his early twenties in pursuit of his own version of love at work. He worked under the renowned Don Clifton at what is today known as Gallup, and co-created the StrengthsFinder system with Clifton in 2001. Today he runs his own consulting company and has published ten books on leadership and career development, including the bestselling First, Break All The Rules.

Love + Work is sweeping in its scope, covering questions as big as working out what you love to do; as tactical as how to ask the right questions about an organization when interviewing for a new job; and as ambitious as shaking up the entire education system. In that respect, you’ll find something in this book whether you’re passionate about changing the system of work, or simply looking for some tools to help improve your everyday.

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Buckingham eloquently argues that our schools and workplaces encourage and reward conformity, and make it difficult for our unique strengths, passions, and loves to shine. As Buckingham writes, the experience of learning and living in such a system can be soul-crushing. Many of us grow up feeling unseen and unable to be the very best of ourselves. This goes on to affect not just how we show up at work, but how we are in the rest of our lives—and the quality of our friendships and relationships.

When we do an activity we love, researchers have found the same combinations of chemicals in our brain are present as when we experience romantic love—a mix of oxytocin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and vasopressin, with the addition of anandamide. According to Buckingham’s research, the presence of these chemicals helps you better notice other people’s emotions and remember details; perform cognitive tasks better; and be more optimistic, loyal, forgiving and open.

“Your fullest life, then, is one where your loves and your work flow in an infinite loop," he writes. "The energy of one fuels the energy of the other. Thus, the only way you’ll make a lasting contribution in life is to deeply understand what it is that you love. And the inverse: you’ll never live a life you love unless you deeply understand how to contribute to others.”

A woman's hands hold a latte with a heart on top. She has a camera next to her on the table.
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The devil is in the details, however. Buckingham isn’t advocating for a vague, broad idea of love here. He says what’s key is finding the specific tasks or activities that you love to do—your red threads. According to Buckingham, it’s important not to focus too much on the outcomes of what you’re doing. It’s the what that counts more than the why. And you don’t need to be doing these activities you love all the time. In fact, Buckingham cites research from the Mayo Clinic that found 20 percent of your time is all you need to spend doing something you love in order to be more resilient and less at risk of burnout.

The book takes a more personal tone than Buckingham’s previous books. He draws on accounts of his own work life and personal relationships, as well as his research and experience, to talk about the different ways that love does or doesn’t show up in the work place: love for the work; love for the organization; love for your colleagues; and even the influence of romantic love. The book at times is so personal, it almost feels like a memoir. I didn’t find all these accounts necessary to portray the ideas in the book – if anything, their anecdotal and personal nature detracted from the weight of research and experience backing up Buckingham’s work. Yet, I can understand why he does it. After all, the corporate world can often feel a very inhuman place. By sharing personal stories, including his experience of divorce, Buckingham brings a dose of realism and humanity to careers advice. Our working lives don’t happen in isolation from our personal lives—as he writes, they in turn influence each other.

There were moments reading the book when I found myself wanting to immediately jump on Slack to share the insights with my colleagues. I found the middle part of the book to be the strongest, when Buckingham shares the “Seven Devils” holding people back from finding love in their work, and then shifts into more practical guidance for the workplace. He ends with an in-depth—and personal—account of the role of the U.S. education system in hindering love at work, which I found interesting, but not as immediately applicable or actionable as the previous sections. Despite losing me slightly through this ending, it remains a book where I’ve continued to ponder the core ideas long after I put it down. Check it out if you’re looking to understand more about what love at work might mean for you and some practical guidance on how to nurture it.


Psst: we’re discussing Love + Work at our Book Club on Thursday, February 29. Join us here!

Looking for more ways to explore your loves and passions at work? We’ve got you covered.

The Meaningful Work Survey* is a self-awareness assessment designed to help you uncover what really motivates you—illuminating a path to a more fulfilled worklife. For a limited time, we are also offering the opportunity to schedule a free 1:1 session with one of our expert Guides who can help you turn your survey results into action.

*Please note that, right now, we’re only able to offer the Meaningful Work Survey in the US. We hope to change that soon!

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